When Joe Nathan underwent Tommy John surgery last spring, the Twins needed to find a new closer. They considered transitioning starter Francisco Liriano into that role, before instead moving setup man Jon Rauch to closer for half the season and later trading for the Nationals' Matt Capps to save games in the second half. It was, perhaps, an inelegant solution but it worked.
If only Minnesota's 2011 bullpen quandary was so easy to fix.
This offseason four of the Twins' top relievers -- Rauch, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Brian Fuentes -- are all free-agents. Because of the expected raises granted in arbitration, the club only offered it to one (Crain), who declined.
That means those four Twins' arms that accounted for 206 1/3 relief innings last year (45.1 percent of the team's bullpen total) are likely gone. Even more starkly, they pitched 78 1/3 innings of the 113 2/3 innings of save situations -- 68.9 percent of their most important innings.
And the Twins don't have it as bad as the Rays.
Tampa Bay has already lost dominant eighth-inning reliever Joaquin Benoit to the Tigers and now risks seeing closer Rafael Soriano and fellow relievers Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler depart, as well.
That sextet pitched 64.3 percent of the Rays' bullpen innings (292 out of 454) and converted 49 of their 51 saves. In fact, those six threw 121 1/3 of the Rays' 128 innings in save situations -- a staggering 94.8 percent. The Rays offered arbitration to all but Wheeler, but each of the other five declined, undoubtedly in part because of the three-year, $16.5-million deal Detroit gave Benoit, setting a pricey market for non-closing relievers.
Thus the Rays and Twins, two of the American League's four playoff teams this fall, are faced with the unenviable position of rebuilding their bullpens nearly from scratch. Minnesota at least has Capps and Nathan to anchor the eighth and ninth innings, with lefty Jose Mijares in front of them; Tampa Bay currently has only Lance Cormier, the lone returning fulltime member of the bullpen, returning in 2011.
Bullpens are clearly becoming increasingly important in baseball's modern era of pitch counts and protected starters. It is little coincidence that the four AL teams with the best bullpen ERAs in 2010 were the league's four playoff entrants: Rays (3.33), Rangers (3.38), Yankees (3.47) and Twins (3.49). In the National League the Giants (2.99) and Braves (3.07) ranked second and third, respectively, while only the Reds (3.95) and Phillies (3.98) lagged back in seventh and ninth.
A correlation between a strong bullpen and successful teams is obviously nothing new, but it is illustrative. Ranking each of the 30 teams by bullpen ERA over the 10 seasons from 2001 to 2010 results in a ranking of 1-300. Four of the last six World Series champions (the 2005 White Sox, '07 Red Sox, '08 Phillies and '10 Giants) had years in which their bullpen ERA ranked in the top 24 spots -- or top 8 percent.
One of those anomalies is the 2009 Yankees, who, once they got to the playoffs, were able to use Mariano Rivera for one-third of their postseason relief innings. The other is the 2006 Cardinals, whose bullpen ERA that year was a mediocre seventh in the NL at 4.06 but followed the 2002, '04 and '05 Cardinals teams that all had seasons in which their bullpen ERA ranked in the top 20.
Of the 20 World Series participants over the past 10 years, 12 of them had bullpen ERA seasons in the top 60 (i.e. top 20 percent). Of the other eight, five ranked no worse than No. 123 (top 41 percent). Two of the remaining three ranked near the midpoint -- the 2003 Yankees were No. 149 and the aforementioned '06 Cardinals were No. 158 -- while only the '03 Marlins were a true outlier, ranking No. 203.
So what are the 2011 Rays and Twins to do about replenishing their bullpens? Of the 10 free agents between them, only Crain and Guerrier had spent their entire major league careers with their current teams, meaning both clubs have always used outside resources to build the bullpens.
The Twins, particularly now that they play in new revenue-generating ballpark, can afford to add a veteran arm or at least retain one of their free-agents, along with looking internally at such relieving options as Anthony Burnett (subpar 2010 in that role), Anthony Slama (who spent most of year in Triple-A) or Pat Neshek, the formerly dominant setup man who missed roughly two full seasons after having Tommy John surgery.
Tampa Bay has been linked in news reports to Crain and Blue Jays closer Kevin Gregg, and perhaps they can afford one established arm -- even if, like Crain, he's a proven seventh- and eighth-inning guy who'll be adapted into the ninth-inning role. But given ownership's increased restrictions on payroll, the Rays will almost entirely have to supply their bullpen with internal options. Last year the club stretched its budget to spend $7.25 million on an established closer in Rafael Soriano, traded for Qualls and had reasonably priced veterans Benoit, Choate and Wheeler on hand. Another veteran, lefty J.P. Howell, will be in the mix later in the year when he's fully recovered from shoulder surgery.
In 2011, they'll likely have to hand over the last few innings to starting pitcher prospects Jeremy Hellickson and Jake McGee, both of whom began pitching in relief in the latter half of 2010 and could do so again if the Rays don't trade one of their starters in a cost-cutting move. Sometimes the transition of young starter to reliever works -- Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, the AL Rookie of the Year, had long been a starter before breaking into the majors as a reliever -- while in other instances there's an adjustment. Hellickson, for instance, was great as a major-league starter (2.05 ERA in four starts) last year but struggled as a reliever (7.20 ERA in six appearances). But Tampa Bay seemingly has few other options.
The decisions facing the Twins and especially the Rays on how to construct another bullpen are difficult -- but undoubtedly essential for a winning team.